Often considered the “father of Latin literature,” Livius Andronicus is the earliest Latin writer whose identity is assured, and also was the earliest extant non-Roman writer in Latin poetry, as well as the first to compose using Greek models.
Livius Andronicus was born ca. 285 BCE in Tarentum in Magna Graecia in southern Italy. He was likely taken as a prisoner of war (and therefore slave) to Rome after Tarentum’s sack in 272. Accius alleges that Andronicus was actually taken in 209 when Tarentum fell to Rome for a second time. However, Cicero states that he personally inspected a document (Brutus 72-73) which confirms Andronicus’ first play in 240. Livy (27.37.7) states that Andronicus composed a partheneion to Juno for M. Livius Salinator during the Salinator’s consulship in 207; it is unlikely Andronicus could have gained so much notoriety in just two years. Some scholars still opt for the late dating, but the communio opinionis places him at Rome earlier.
Coming to Rome, he was obtained by one of the Livii, most likely by M. Livius Salinator, father of the same M. Livius Salinator who commissioned the aforementioned partheneion. As a man of learning, Livius Andronicus likely was bought as a tutor for the son (and perhaps other members of the family), and due to his prominence, earned his freedom.
It is unknown when he died.
Andronicus’ magnum opus was a translation of Homer’s Odyssey into Latin Saturnian verse (the Odusia), which became a standard textbook for Roman classrooms. While it was a fairly literal translation, Andronicus adopted much of the epic to be suitable for a Roman audience. The names of gods and heroes were given Latin equivalents (e.g. Zeus = Iuppiter, Odysseus = Ulixes), and offensive or unflattering actions and titles were also replaced with innocuous ones. Thus Homer calls Patroclus a “counselor equal to the gods” (θεόφιν μήστωρ ἀτάλαντος, 3.110), but in Andronicus, he becomes merely “greatest and most-distinguished” (summus adprimus).
Andronicus is also rightly credited with bringing the Hellenistic theater to Rome. Tarentum, his hometown, was famous for its dramatic festivals, and its theater seemed to have traveled with him. Unfortunately, his output is almost all lost. Of his tragedies, 40 verses and eight titles are known: Achilles, Aegisthus, Andromeda, Aiax Mastigophorus (lit. “Ajax the Whip-Carrier”), Danae, Equos Troianus (lit. “The Trojan Horse”), Hermiona, and Tereus. Nonius reports two more, Andromeda and Antiopa (=Antiope), though many consider these actually written by Pacuvius. Varrois also aware of another which mentioned Teucer, though it is uncertain whether the tragedy was about him or someone else.
Three fabulae palliatae also exist under his name: Gladiolus, Ludius, and either a Virgus or Verpus.
Andronicus was honored with the task of creating a hymn to Juno, called a partheneion (a hymn sung by young virgin girls, from the Greek παρθένος, parthenos “virgin girl, maiden”), for good omens during a particularly critical moment of the Second Punic War; nothing of it remains.
It is possible but uncertain that he also composed fabulae praetextae and saturae.
Style and Legacy
Andronicus was not very popular at all during the heyday of Roman literature. He was mentioned by both Cicero (Brut. 71) and Horace (Epist. 2.1.61-62) as the originator of Latin literature and as a standard necessary for study, but neither found him appealing. Additionally, Horace mentions that his archaic Latin was particularly difficult for students to read, and it appears that it was archaic not only during the first century BCE, but even during Andronicus’ time as well. He was only quoted for this unusual language until his works were permanently lost around the seventh century CE.
English translation of Odusia: Forum Romanum
Books and Articles
- Gesine Manuwald 2011. Roman Republican Theatre. Cambridge.
- Harold Mattingly 1957. “The Date of Livius Andronicus,” Classical Quarterly 7: 158–163.
- Michael von Albrecht 1999. Roman Epic: An Interpretative Introduction. Leiden.